TRAGIC KINGDOM: “The Fool’s Lear” Brings New Take on Shakespeare’s Tragedy to New York City

fool2William Shakespeare’s vast body of work has shown to be as enduring as ever as we enter 2019.  The Bard’s keen view of human nature– the good, the bad, and the ugly– has prophetically proven to be immortal.  True, many modern readers are understandably intimidated by the author’s archaic but deliciously over-indulgent wordings.  That said, in an era when emoticons and texting acronyms dominate our culture of communication, it almost makes this writer wish that we did return at least partway to the more flowery language of the 1600’s. Even the insults, of which there are many in King Lear (mostly from Lear himself), sound better than today’s taunts. While we can arguably do without calling someone a “vassal”, “miscreant”, “cur”, or “whoreson dog”(!), many of the King’s other put-downs actually sound quite elegant, as when the tragic monarch declares the famous line, “Better thou, Hadst not been born than not t’ have pleased me better.” … or “Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth, With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks.”  Whoa!…

foolThe Fool’s Lear, now playing at New York City’s IRT Theater, is a new version of an ageless story: the cautionary tale of a king who sadly grew old before he grew wise.  Adapted and directed by H. Clark Kee, this fast-moving, energetic production brings the lengthy Shakespeare tragedy to a trim 90 minutes, and offers the distinction of being from the perspective of the character of the Fool.  From the beginning, the audience will realize that this “Fool” is hardly foolish, but rather one of the more astute characters in the play.  As the pivotal family drama initially unfolds in the beginning of the piece, our Fool sits in the corner and quietly looks on– complete with Titian corkscrew-curled hair, a jester’s hat, and wide, laughing eyes. The Fool later becomes the King’s confidant, caretaker, constant companion, and protector.  She’s also his source of entertainment, breaking into dance and singing amusingly corny songs throughout the play.  She even offers some oft-debated asides to the audience about the future of Britain, such as “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.”  Delightfully played by Judy Krause, the Fool paradoxically becomes not only a “straight man” to the King, but also the source of much of the play’s levity and trans-millenial Shakespearian humor

fool5But back to our King… The setting of The Fool’s Lear is pre-Christian Britain, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to meet the titular King Lear (Mark Peters)–who, upon first glance, seems like a harmless grandfatherly type.  The aging ruler is planning to divide his kingdom between his three daughters.  But first, he asks each of the trio to declare their love for him: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend, Where nature doth with merit challenge.”  While Goneril, the eldest (played by Elizabeth A. Bell) and Regan, the middle child (played by Virginia Armitage) offer overly poetic and metaphor-rich expressions of praise, his youngest and most revered daughter Cordelia (Annie Winneg) doesn’t quite give the answer that the King wants to hear.  After initially declaring, “Nothing, my lord.”, she continues with “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave, My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty, According to my bond; no more nor less”.  No sooner than one can say, “Daddy Dearest”, the King’s anger is ignited– setting off a slow descent into rage and madness that colors the remainder of the play.  Cordelia is banished to France.  Lear’s loyal Earl of Kent (Joe Penczak), who dares to challenge the king for disowning his youngest daughter, is also banished.  Kent returns, taking on a different accent to fool the King into giving him a job as a servant named “Caius”. Meanwhile, another family drama is intertwined into the story, with a sibling rivalry developing between Edmund (Brian Heuer) and Edgar (Fariaz Rabbiani), the two sons of the Earl of Gloucester (Robert G. McKay).  Like Lear, to whom he’s loyal, Gloucester puts misguided faith in one child over another: He trusts the “illegitimate” Edmund, who sets out to betray his half-brother.  Opportunism, greed, and pretense prove to be stronger than family loyalty for both these clans.   By Act 2,  the aforementioned poetic and metaphor-rich expressions of praise by Lear’s older daughters turn out to be empty, and the King finds himself increasingly isolated and rapidly deteriorating. His madness is seemingly symbolized by the sound effects of thunder and rain, as well as the appearance of the bare-chested “Mad Tom”, who is actually Edgar in disguise.  Always astute to the workings of human nature, Shakespeare was no stranger to exploring moral themes.  In the case of King Lear, inhumanity translates into a rather high body count by the conclusion– although most of the violence in this version of Lear’s saga is merely spoken of rather than shown on stage.  The real horror in this story is the fact that, well… no one wins.

The entire cast performs well, with several standouts.  As mentioned before, Judy Krause is excellent as “the Fool”, as is Joe Penczak as Kent/Caius.  Fariaz Rabbiani offers some much-needed over-the-top moments in Edgar’s persona of “Mad Tom”, while Brian Heuer comes across as appropriately manipulative as Edmund.   As Gloucester, Robert G. McKay gives a sympathetic performance, as does Annie Winneg as Cordelia.  In contrast, Elizabeth A. Bell and Virginia Armitage appropriately provoke– well, the opposite of sympathy as Lear’s greedy daughters.  (Bell is particularly enjoyable to watch.)  But ultimately, this is King Lear’s show all the way, and Mark Peters (on stage almost the entire running time) is excellent as his monarch evolves from frailty to full-on madness, becoming increasingly more animated in the process.  The intimate, black box design of the IRT Theater serves this production very well. The elaborate costume design, an uncredited contribution of Production Coordinator Audrey Lavine, also deserves a shout-out.
fool4Centuries after it first hit the stage, Shakespeare’s royal tragedy still has lessons worth re-learning in our present day.  In a play with many eternal bits of dialogue, one of them is Edgar’s late plea for honesty over pretense: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.  Sadly, certain political leaders (Two guesses won’t be necessary.) may have taken that too far– speaking their mind without thinking.  Those same political leaders (Two guesses won’t be necessary again.) may benefit from the other lesson of Lear: An unchecked ego has tragic effects for individuals, families, and even the nation as a whole… and the real “fool” is not always the one wearing the jester’s hat.

Oldest Boys Production in association with Accidental Repertory Theater presents The Fool’s Lear through Saturday, January 26 at IRT Theater,154 Christopher St., #3B (third floor), New York City.  Visit here for complete information and showtimes.

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